There are often two sides to a story. Injury is the straightforward half, the occupational hazard of a fast bowler. Ask Ishant Sharma or Umesh Yadav. Mohammed Shami too, though as a tail-ender he was facing up to a charged-up Pat Cummins and was hit, suffering an arm fracture.
The other half tells of the drama attached to India’s fast bowling unit. Thangarasu Natarajan has risen from village tennis-ball matches to IPL to India net bowler to limited-overs debut while Mohammed Siraj made an emotional, and winning, Test debut at the MCG; his autorickshaw-driver father who helped his son realise his dream, didn’t live to see his biggest moment.
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Navdeep Saini’s too has been an exciting journey, rising from tennis-ball cricket to be picked for Test debut against Australia in the third Test at Sydney. The 27-year-old from Haryana’s refinery town Karnal still needed polishing when former India opener Gautam Gambhir, then Delhi skipper, fought with officials to keep him in the Delhi Ranji Trophy squad.
SHINING FOR DELHI
Delhi cricketer Sumit Narwal saw Saini playing tennis ball cricket and asked him to come to Delhi. The Delhi selectors were not keen to keep an “outsider” as Saini was from Haryana. He was on the verge of being dropped for the 2016 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy T20 tournament when Gambhir stepped in.
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Saini vindicated his faith in the 2017-18 season; his 34 wickets helped Delhi reach the Ranji Trophy final, where they lost to Vidarbha. His first IPL team was the Delhi franchise, in 2017, but a next important step was to be bought by Virat Kohli’s Royal Bangalore Challengers for R3 crore in 2018.
Saini had struggled with injuries till 2014-15, including a stress fracture of the back, but focus on fitness helped make a strong comeback. His pace (he bowls in the mid-140 kph) and control raises hope he too can make a mark on debut like Siraj did at the MCG.
It should be if one goes by Saini’s limited-overs start in late 2019. In his first ODI at Cuttack, the bouncer got Shimron Hetmyer and the yorker arrowed into Roston Chase’s stumps. He had already taken 3/17 on T20 debut at Lauderhill, US, against the Windies in that August.
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Saini, in an interview to HT in December, 2019 spoke about Kohli’s early message. “Virat bhai only has one advise: ‘jo cheez tu abhi tak karta aa raha usi cheez ko khulke karna hai, bina dare, bina kuch soche.’(what you’ve been bowling till now, do it whole-heartedly, without fear or worry).
LIVING A DREAM
Among those who would be excitedly watching Saini’s Test debut on a winter morning would be his 97-year-old grandfather Karam Singh Saini, a freedom fighter who served under Subhash Chandra Bose in Japan.
“He takes huge pride in Navdeep’s achievements. He still keeps tab on his cricket,” said the cricketer’s father Amarjeet Singh Saini, 60, who was a driver with the Haryana government till 2016 as he encouraged his son in the game.
“I’ve been waking up at 5am to watch (the MCG Test). Tomorrow will be no different. We will be praying together for Navi’s and team’s success in our small prayer room,” he said.
As his career took off, Saini asked his father to take it easy. “He only told me to quit the job and enjoy life. He started doing well in 2016… since then there has been no looking back. God has blessed us with so much. Earlier, I was driving government officials, now I drive my car and also have a bike. Navdeep has also bought my favourite Harley Davidson bike. May god help Navdeep do well for India. There is no bigger thing than representing your country.” Amarjeet Saini said.
“It’s good Navdeep is making his Test debut in Australia. The wickets there support seamers. India did well in the last game. I hope my son also makes the most of his debut and shines.”
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